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SAVING THE MOUNTAIN CARIBOU

With heavily muscled bodies, skinny legs, and strong hooves that balloon to the size of dinner plates come winter, mountain caribou — the "mountain ecotype" of the woodland caribou — are well adapted for life in their snow-covered home. Yet nothing could have prepared these shy creatures for the considerable snowmobile traffic that now hurtles across the Selkirk Mountains of northern Washington and Idaho. Caribou eking out an existence here are some of the last of the great caribou herds that once roamed throughout the northern United States. Not only do snowmobiles scare the docile animals and change migration patterns, they also create compacted trails that give predators easy access to prime caribou habitat.

To give this habitat the federal protection caribou need, in January 2009 the Center and allies filed suit against the Bush administration over its more-than-six-year failure to designate critical habitat for the woodland caribou after a 2002 petition. In November 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally proposed to grant the caribou more than 376,562 acres. But in December of the same year — in response to a petition by Pacific Legal Foundation — the agency announced  that removing Endangered Species Act protections for the woodland caribou “may be warranted.” In addition, when the Service finalized critical habitat for the caribou in 2012, the agency slashed its proposed 376,562 acres to just 30,010 acres. We filed a notice of intent to sue over that decision in February 2013.

The Center has also made a priority of curbing snowmobile use in the caribou’s key feeding and calving areas, in 2005 joining five partner organizations in a lawsuit to protect the species and its habitat within the high-elevation forests near Priest Lake, Idaho. But despite research showing that snowmobile traffic harms caribou, the U.S. Forest Service continued to encourage increased snowmobile use in the area. After some back-and-forth with snowmobile users and the agency, our lawsuit resulted in a court decision that banned snowmobiles from 470 square miles of essential caribou habitat. We’ll continue our campaign for more protected caribou habitat and the conservation of old-growth forests so that the mountain caribou population can once again flourish.

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KEY DOCUMENTS
2013 Notice of intent to sue over critical habitat designation
1994 Federal recovery plan

1983 Federal Endangered Species Act listing

ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT PROFILE

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RELATED ISSUES
Forests
Off-road Vehicles
The Endangered Species Act

Contact: Noah Greenwald

Caribou photo by Jon Nickles, USFWS